Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Making Change

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief (roughly speaking).

Ernie invited me to critique the arguments for belief that he included in his testimony, recently posted but originally written years ago. If he had not invited me to comment, I would have left it alone, just as I have avoided commenting on his recent string of posts drawn from A Purpose-Filled Life by Rick Warren. But since he asked...

In the past year and a half, I have talked to a number of people, both friends and family, about my leaving Christianity. Most of those people are still Christians; one never was, and one (who was very influential in my development as a Christian) has also left Christianity behind. With those who are Christians, when I explain my reasons for disbelief, a common response is something like "But I know it's true, because my life changed when I believed" or other similar experiential reasoning. And at the core, that is what I see in Ernie's testimony as well.

Ernie describes an experience that is relatively common, at least generally speaking. He was a teen-ager, accomplished, comfortable, loved by family but lonely. He was unhappy, and felt that his life would always be that way, a life that would not then be worth living. But perhaps the answer to his troubles lay with God. Perhaps by devoting his life to God, his life would be worth living. So he made his decision. And his life changed. (This is, of course, my short summary of what Ernie wrote. I hope that I am being fair in this characterization, knowing that the Ernie's "authoritative" version is only a click away for you.)

What was this change like? The two sentences that best captures that change, in my opinion, are these:

The one thing that did happen immediately was that I had hope. I knew that there was someone there who would share in my struggles, and more importantly would help me overcome them.

I do not doubt that Ernie's life changed. But what I hear him describing is a situation in which he was desperate for a change. His decision to trust God gave him hope. He no longer felt alone. Those were powerful incentives to believe and powerful causes for change once he did believe, so long as he did believe. Belief in God, I submit, was enough to explain the change, regardless of the actual existence of God. And as we have been discussing recently, our beliefs tend to frame how we interpret future experience, so that we have a strong tendency to reinforce those core beliefs.

But this kind of experience is not unique to Christianity. Members of most (all?) religions could relate similar stories. Christians of all flavors, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists, Zen Buddhists, New Agers, on and on. Many will tell you their lives were changed, and generally they will be right. Many will be certain about what they believe because of this change. But unless we are prepared to accept that all of those beliefs are true, how can we trust this kind of evidence at all? Is not the more reasonable conclusion that there are common, purely natural reasons that underly these common experiences?

(Some might suggest that the experiences of those others are counterfeit, maybe even produced by demons. But this helps not at all. How would I know that I was not the one being deceived? Either way, we must look for other kinds of evidence.)

I have a homework assignment for anybody who cares to try. Collect testimonies from people of as many different religions as you can find and compare them. If you like, send them to me at "alan DOT lund AT gmail DOT com" or leave a comment here. I will post everything I receive or find myself.


Future Geek said...

Have you read "Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James?

Not exactly what you are talking about but probably worth a read.

Anonymous said...

Hey Alan,
I know alot of Moslems who don't even have an answer if you ask them why they follow Islam. Some reply "Allah has shown his blessings to me so I must follow him".
I also know a few atheists and although I've never asked them directly why they don't believe in God, they usually get around to: "how could anyone believe in a big daddy in the sky?" or "God is the biggest hoax in the history of man".I know that alot of atheists would(hopefully) offer more to back up their statements...but this is just my personal expereience.

P.S I'm a christian and would love to discuss any points or questions you have.

Alan Lund said...

anonymous: My point is only that the experience of personal change is not unique to Christianity, and so is not evidence for the truth of Christian beliefs, but only evidence for the effect of one's beliefs whatever they are. I am not claiming that all Christians (or all Muslims or all of any group) have only that reason, nor am I claiming that all atheists have better reasons.

Why do you believe?